WASHINGTON -- People learn as toddlers that red means danger, so should red ink be used for medication warnings? And if blue signals the freedom of open skies, how about brainstorming in a room painted blue?
Maybe so, says new research into how the brain reacts to colors: Red seems to improve attention to detail while blue sparks creativity.
"People are not aware of this effect at all," marvels lead researcher Juliet Zhu of the University of British Columbia, who studies how environmental cues affect behavior.
The subconscious effect of color is a hot area of psychology research, in part because marketers try to use color to hook people onto whatever they are trying to sell.
And the newest research, published Thursday by the journal Science, suggests they had better be careful, because red or blue can spark very different brain reactions depending on the task involved.
The study put college students through a series of cognitive tests, most involving computer screens colored either red or blue. Both colors could enhance performance but in very different ways.
Students memorized more words when the list was on a red screen, for instance. Told to think of different uses for a brick, those shown a red screen listed practical things like "build a house" while those who saw blue got more creative with "make a paperweight' and "build a pet scratching post."
When they rated ads, those who saw red backgrounds focused on what to avoid: they liked toothpaste that stressed cavity-fighting over tooth-whitening, while those who saw blue went for the creativity of a camera ad that showed travel images instead of touting the zoom lens. Because people learn early that red means to avoid danger, maybe it slows them down in detail-oriented tasks so they can be done better. Such activities would include memorizing, proofreading, reading warning labels, concluded Zhu, an assistant marketing professor, and co-author Ravi Mehta. But people associate blue with sky, freedom, peace, maybe sparking a feeling of exploration than in turn enhancing creativity. "It's really this learned association with these colors that drive these different motivations," Zhu said. If the findings are right, the creativity discovery could be a big advance. No one has made such a link, said Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester, a leader in the field of color psychology. He had a big caution, however: The study focused on hue without properly taking into account the intensity and brightness of the colors, meaning it should be repeated to be sure. Most color research has focused on red, finding, for example, that it makes good sports uniforms because it's intimidating. Elliot found red is truly a good Valentine's color because it makes men consider women more sexually attractive than other colors do.
How the brain reacts depends on the questions asked, Elliot said. When he flashed red at students before an IQ test or exam he found it undermined performance, maybe making them think of the failure that a teacher's red pen marks evoke. That does not contradict Zhu's results, Elliot cautioned, because proofreading or memorizing is more detail-oriented than a big exam. The bottom line: "What color research shows is our behavior is driven by things we aren't aware of, by things we see on a regular basis," he said. "It's important to know, so when one sees, red one can maybe try to counteract the natural tendency to make mistakes and fail."